The European Union is seeking to advance two key initiatives in the Balkans in the next couple of months, senior officials said Monday.
EU enlargement chief Johannes Hahn said he now hopes for a political breakthrough in Bosnia by early February, which could reopen the country’s path toward eventual EU membership. Meanwhile, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said she is working to relaunch reconciliation talks in January between Serbia and Kosovo at prime ministerial level.
Bosnia’s EU prospects have stalled for years primarily because of a constitutional provision that divvies up the country’s presidency across the three dominant ethnic groups—Bosnian Serbs, Croats—and the majority Muslim Bosniak population. The provision, a key part of the country’s post civil war political framework, has been declared unlawful.
On Monday, EU foreign ministers in Brussels backed a new initiative which would implement a pre-accession accord with Bosnia, without the Balkan country first having to change its constitution. The agreement would be Bosnia’s first concrete step toward EU membership. It could deepen economic ties and increase EU assistance to Sarajevo.
In return, Bosnia’s leaders would have to sign up to a detailed road map of economic and administrative reforms and pledge to deal at a later stage with the constitutional deadlock.
Mr. Hahn said, “The next step should be that all key players in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the presidency, party leaders, but also the parliament…should commit themselves to this written commitment” to reforms.
Mr. Hahn said he hopes that when the new government enters office “by the end of January, or the beginning of February, everyone should have signed up to this written commitment.”
The EU commissioner said if the reform pledge was made, the implementation of the Stabilization and Association agreement, which has been on hold for six years, “could be then a consequence of that.”
The constitutional provision to divvy up the presidency grew out of the Dayton peace deal that ended the bitter civil war in the country. By dividing power and giving each community a veto on major issues, the provision guaranteed Bosnian Serbs’ acceptance of a single nation state. It also entrenched the autonomy of the Serbian “political entity” in Bosnia—the Republika Srpska.
However, in 2009, after complaints from Roma and Jewish leaders, the European Court of Human Rights said the provision was illegal.
Ten days ago, Mr. Hahn and Ms. Mogherini visited Bosnia to meet with the country’s political leadership. After those discussions, Ms. Mogherini said there was clear political will in Bosnia to advance EU-backed reforms. Speaking Monday evening, Ms. Mohgerini said she was hopeful that the bloc’s Bosnia initiative, which was backed Monday by foreign ministers, could prove a “turning point” in the country, which is mired in economic distress and diplomatic isolation.
Ms. Mogherini also said she was looking to meet with Serbia and Kosovo’s prime minister soon after the Orthodox Christmas break in early January. Her predecessor, Catherine Ashton, took a hands-on role in the talks between the one-time Balkan foes, personally chairing regular meetings.
Kosovo’s parliament recently ended a six month political crisis by appointing a new government under Prime Minister Isa Mustafa. His predecessor Hashim Thaçi will remain a force in the new coalition as its foreign minister. Kosovo and Serbia signed a historic agreement in April 2013 that opened a new era of cooperation between Serbia and its former province. However the dialogue made little progress in 2014 as first Serbia then Kosovo held elections.
Serbia has vowed never to recognize Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008. However the two sides have sought to ease tensions between the majority Albanian and minority Serbian community in Kosovo and are working to improve various energy and economic ties between them.
On Monday, Mr. Hahn said both sides needed to fully implement agreements they had already signed up to—saying that both Pristina and Belgrade had been using the political standoff in Kosovo as an excuse not to improve cooperation.